Book Review: Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman

Britt-Marie Was Here
Fredrik Backman
Washington Square Press, February 2017
ISBN: 978-1-5011-4254-3
Trade Paperback

Best-selling author Backman (A Man called Ove) is back with a difficult, intense novel about the life of the woman in the title. Britt-Marie is a familiar figure to many, hence the initial popularity of this deliberately paced novel of life in a small Scandinavian town, populated by a surprising number of odd mis-fits and other people who exhibit familiar and unusual traits.

Her unfaithful husband has left her, or she’s left him; I was never quite sure and she needs a job to sustain herself. We discover very early that Britt-Marie is an unusual person with a highly developed sense of necessary cleanliness, and precision-focused life. Appointments are kept, one is never late and one tries desperately at times to maintain a precise even rigid life style.

Written in the first person present tense, the novel is at times slow-moving, hard to penetrate and ultimately satisfying in resolution. However, it is not the sort of book that will appeal to a wide reading audience, unlike the author’s A Man Called Ove, which is charming and enormously popular, or boring and a struggle to complete, depending on whose reviews you read. I watched the movie which was charming.

This novel maintains an even pace and readers, if they complete the story, will be well-informed of the life and times in this small community and they will understand that Britt-Marie was indeed, here.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, October 2018.
The Case of the Purloined Painting, The Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky.

Book Review: Spellbinding by Maya Gold

Maya Gold
Point, April 2013
ISBN 978-0-545-43380-8
Trade Paperback

Oh, how we all longed for our 16th birthday!  It meant freedom in the form of a driver’s license.  No longer at the mercy of busy parents, or snarky older siblings; we could go where we wanted, when we wanted, all while listening to whatever we wanted to.  Good times.

Abby Silva had those very same expectations, but her sixteenth birthday brought wicked nightmares, skull-splitting headaches and strange sensations.  Maybe manifestations created from the stress of preparing for her driving portion of the exam.  Maybe she is bipolar.  Maybe she has a brain disease.  Or, maybe something that has been dormant inside of her since birth, is rapidly emerging.  Abby doesn’t know what the problem is, only that something very strange is happening.

Oddly enough, an extra-credit assignment to create a family tree leads Abby towards the answers.  While she knew a bit of her father’s background; her mother died when Abby was only eleven.  She knew very little of her mother’s ancestors.  Imagine her shock and disbelief when she discovers that she is a direct descendant of an alleged witch, destroyed by the people of Salem in 1692.  Further research leads Abby to believe that her kin’s witchcraft was very real.  Is this the answer?  Is Abby a witch?

With a new door opened, Abby recalls recent oddities.  Her fervent wish that her driving test parallel parking was good enough to pass, immediately followed by shock and disbelief as the red cone seemed to move closer to the car’s bumper.  Ever the student, Abby quickly hits the library to research the phenomenon.  Among the dusty reference books, she discovers a small book filled with hand-written spells.  There is clearly only one way to test her theory, but which spell to try?

As Abby dabbles with her newfound power, the witches of Salem take notice.  As with humans, there are good witches and there are very, very bad witches.  It is up to Abby to determine which is which.  The wrong choice will have adverse consequences on the entire town of Salem and its surrounding areas.  All along the way, temptations are ruthlessly tossed her way, keeping her in a state of flux and she works to seek the truth.

I enjoyed this fast-paced, suspenseful story tremendously.  On the surface, it could be said that it is about a young witch with a tough decision; but, to me, there is so much more.  I found this to be a book of self-discovery.  Abby’s struggles are very real-life.  In the book, her rise to popularity is due to witchcraft, but in the real world; all teens go through this roller-coaster ride of fitting in.  We all had a moment in the sunshine, in addition to time in the shadows.  Once we got what we wanted, we had to decide if we really wanted it after all.  We had to stop focusing on the surface lives of the beautiful people to look deep within ourselves.  We were given opportunities that seemed easy, with guarantees of success.  We also had harder choices, the ones with no guarantees.  We all had the same bottom line: if I make this choice, am I being true to myself?

Spellbinding is a fun read with characters that elicit empathy and support, as well as a mysterious, suspenseful plot.

Reviewed by jv poore, April 2013.

Book Reviews: Irises by Francisco X. Stork and Revenge of the Girl with the Great Personality by Elizabeth Eulberg

Francisco X. Stork
Arthur A. Levine Books, January 2012
ISBN 978-0-545-15135-1

Some people are raised to believe that all matters are black and white.  This is good, that is bad.  This is acceptable, that is not.  Someone is either alive, or he is dead. From the outside looking in, this may appear to be oppressive.  On the other hand, these people already have all of the answers, they know what they can do, and what they cannot—it is that simple.  Until it isn’t.

Kate and Mary are sisters, raised by a very strict Protestant Reverend and his dutiful wife.  In their mother, they found joy.  Kate and her mother shared a special, secret dream.  Together, they talked of Kate attending Stanford and becoming a doctor.  Mary also shared her dream with her mother, only it was no secret.  Mary is an extraordinary artist, particularly for her young age.  She sees a light around people and is able to subtly work that into her paintings.  Mother is proud of Mary and she enthusiastically supports her younger daughter.  Father thinks painting is a waste of time and he simply assumes that Kate will follow his plan; stay active in church, get married and raise a family. So, for a while, Kate and Mary have the simplicity of knowing what is acceptable and what is not and they experience joy and fantasies with their mother.

A terrible accident leaves their mom in a vegetative state with only a part-time nurse to help the girls care for her needs.  Poor health has father meeting his maker while sixteen year old Mary sits by his side.  Two years her senior, Mary looks to Kate to figure out how they will get by.  Their house belongs to the church, Kate has Stanford waiting and Mary is too young to be on her own; but finding someone to take her and her mother in seems impossible.

Mr. Stork masterfully captures the stoicism and detachment that, at first, encompass the household.  By sprinkling in bits of family history, he coaxes empathy from the reader.  The girls’ characters develop as they struggle to leave the confines of their black and white world and make decisions they’ve never imagined. Kate’s use of her newfound freedom may amplify their troubles.  The choices they are faced with could bring them closer, or forever rip them apart.

I found this story to be enlightening and compelling.  I will certainly pick up another Francisco X. Stork book.

Reviewed by jv poore, February 2013.


Revenge of the Girl with the Great PersonalityRevenge of the Girl With the Great Personality
Elizabeth Eulberg
Point/Scholastic, March 2013
ISBN 978-0-545-47699-7

Yes.  The book is as good as the title.  I love a story of self-discovery and acceptance through trial and error.  Revenge of the Girl With the Great Personality centers around that theme, but is so much more.

Lexi is an almost-typical teen living with an atypical family.  Her narcissistic, unhappy mother that tries valiantly to live vicariously through her youngest daughter is easy to despise, yet somehow, manages to elicit a bit of empathy here and there.  The young sister appears as a despicable, spoiled brat; but, there may be hope for her. One of Lexi’s best friends, Benny, steals the show.  The Beautiful People are well depicted, with each adding unique traits to enrich the story.

I found this book compelling.  I enjoyed the layers of Lexi: the “adult” and the big sister at home, the Great Personality at school and work.  Lexi hadn’t initiated a journey of self-discovery, which (to me) makes the tale so much cooler.  Her transformation is immediate and stunning.  Effects are varied, resulting in confusion, hurt feelings and lots of attention.  Fortunately, Lexi’s drastic change encourages her not only to truly examine herself, but to take a hard look at real friends versus Beautiful People.

I admire the way the author captured true teen personalities, without resorting to the use of crude and lazy conversations that I’ve come to expect from Middle School and High School students (Don’t misunderstand, I do love the crazy kids.)  Ms. Eulberg’s writing weaves in small details that enhance the story.  Benny’s t-shirts make me smile, and the chapter titles are hilarious.  I couldn’t wait to see if Lexi’s 180 became a 360, or if she could create a middle ground.  Rooting for her to summon the courage to speak her mind to those she finds oppressive, I forfeited sleep to see how her story would end.  I am not sorry for that, I liked everything about this book.

Reviewed by jv poore, January 2013.